Meeting The Tattooed Women Of Chin State
When researching for my trip to Myanmar, I knew that I wanted to explore beyond the well-travelled tourist route of Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon. That is when I came across Chin State, in the western area of the country bordering Bangladesh and India. A state that was one of the last to be opened-up to foreigners and one that still sees very few tourists.
Chin State is home to several small ethnic groups that make up what is collectively referred to as the Chin people, and is considered one of the major ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Their most distinctive feature is the customary tattooing of women’s faces, each with a unique design from forehead to chin. It was a tradition until it was outlawed by the central government in the 1960s, although it’s believed to have still been practiced until the 1990s in some remote villages.
The exact explanation for the unique tradition is contested. The dominant narrative being that it was started centuries ago to hide the beauty of young girls and stop them being kidnapped by Burmese princes searching for wives. The alternative explanation is quite the opposite, and suggests the tattoos were designed to enhance the woman’s beauty, more of a cultural stamp of womanhood in the communities. Whatever the original purpose, I found the beauty and strength of the Chin women could not be denied, and I was interested to gain an insight into the fascinating tradition.
Leaving behind the popular tourist area of Bagan and its pagoda-filled plains, I took a pick-up truck and then a minibus to a town called Mindat in Chin State. I found a local guesthouse run by a beautiful and friendly woman and she gave me a room on the top floor. From my window I could see the small mountain town below blanketed in fog, adding to the mysterious nature of a place still not openly explored by tourists.
There was one particular lady I had read about, and even seen photos of online when I was scouring for information. Daw Yaw Shen, over 90 years old, is the last remaining woman known in the area to play the traditional nose flute. For over a decade, she has welcomed international photographers, researchers and explorers who have travelled the world to meet her, and witness the rare instrument being played.
Yaw Shen learnt the nose flute as a child and continues to play it to this day at important cultural events. She’s become a bit of a Chin ‘rockstar’, locals revere her for her traditional skill, and foreigners travel all the way to Mindat to sit with her. Understanding her attraction, she charges 5000 kyats or around AUD$5 for the privilege of watching her play the flute and take her photo.
I visited her in a small wooden house where she lives with her daughter, next to the local private high school. I sat in their kitchen and Yaw Shen emerged proudly, dressed in her traditional clothing and jewellery. A big smile spread across her weathered, tattooed face as our eyes met.
With her very limited English and my non-existent Burmese, we exchanged many smiles and nods. She raised the flute to her nose and played a tune for me, her fingers able to move along the pipe to make a sweet melody despite her age. I couldn’t help but feel very privileged to have the chance to witness a tradition that will practically disappear when Yaw Shen passes on.
When I gave her the money for her demonstration, she clasped my hands and her daughter translated that she had said, “Thank you, thank you so much for coming to meet me”. Of course, the money would contribute to her family’s livelihood, however, it was obvious that Yaw Shen was very proud of her culture and eager to share it with anyone who was interested.
I walked around town and down to the local market, conscious that I would stick out. Men stared as I passed, and kids initially took flight before peeking a look at the newcomer from behind the safety of a nearby door or wall. Women on the other hand smiled at me, unfazed by my presence. It was almost an acknowledgement that they recognised I was a fellow female coming to discover and learn about their traditions.
I saw many older women with their faded facial tattoos on the streets in town, sitting behind their produce at the market, or buying supplies from small shops. I could have raised my camera to snap their picture or even approached them to ask for their portrait, but I chose not to. Tourism is spreading fast in Myanmar, and the nature of the industry could mean that in a few years’ time there will be many tourists coming and hassling them for photos. These women, who are going about their daily life, possess tattooed features because of an ancient tradition that has become a part of their identity. While the tattoos might have been intended to deter royal eyes, they may result in attracting foreign camera lenses in years to come.
For now, however, I can say that I have been privileged to spend some time in a place still widely unexplored, in the company of beautiful women with a fascinating culture that is slowly fading, and in a country that continues to change since it opened itself to the outside world.